What Is Hinduism?

by Suhotra Swami

Table of contents:

* {1.} Hinduism

* {2.} Vedanta

* {3.} Siddhanta (Philosophical Conclusion)

* {4.} Shankara and Buddhism

* {5.} Differences Among the Four Vaishnava Sampradayas

* {6.} Reconciliation of the Four Vaishnava Viewpoints

* {7.} Sanatana-dharma

* {8.} The Avataras of Godhead

* {9.} Liberation in Krishna Consciousness



A Christian, visiting India from the West, would surely think it strange if he or she was told

by an Indian, "You are a follower of Jordanism." Christianity, along with Judaism and Islam,

hails from the region of the Jordan river. But it is unlikely that Christians, Jews and Muslims

would like their faiths being lumped together under such an artificial, unscriptural category as

"Jordanism." Yet just this sort of thing was done to the followers of the indigenous religions

of India. The word "Hinduism" is derived from the name of a river in present-day Pakistan,

the Sindhu (also known as the Indus). Beginning around 1000 AD, invading armies from the

Middle East called the place beyond the Sindhu "Hindustan" and the people who lived there

the "Hindus". (Due to the invaders' language, the s was change to h.) In the centuries that

followed, the term "Hindu" became acceptable even to the Indians themselves as a general

designation for their different religious traditions. But since the word Hindu is not found in

the scriptures upon which these traditions are based, it is quite inappropriate. The proper term

is vedic dharma; the next two paragraphs briefly explain each of these words.

The word vedic refers to the teachings of the Vedic literatures. From these literatures we learn

that this universe, along with countless others, was produced from the breath of Maha-Vishnu some 155,250,000,000,000 years ago. The Lord's divine breath simultaneously transmitted all

the knowledge humankind requires to meet the material needs and revive his dormant God

consciousness of each person. This knowledge is called Veda. Caturmukha (four-faced)

Brahma, the first created being within this universe, received Veda from Vishnu. Brahma,

acting as an obedient servant of the Supreme Lord, populated the planetary systems with all

species of life and imparted the Vedic scriptures as the guide for spiritual and material

progress. Veda is thus traced to the very beginning of the cosmos.

Some of the most basic Vedic teachings seen within modern Hinduism are:

* Every living creature is an eternal soul covered by a material body.* The souls bewildered by maya (the illusion of identifying the self with the body) must

reincarnate from body to body, life after life.

* To accept a material body means to suffer the fourfold pangs of birth, old age, disease, and


* Depending upon the quality of work (karma) in the human form, a soul may take its next

birth in a subhuman species, the human species, a superhuman species, or may be freed from

birth and death altogether.



* Karma dedicated in sacrifice as directed by Vedic injunctions elevates and liberates the


Dharma is the essential nature of the Veda. The term dharma is translated as "duty," "virtue,"

"morality," "righteousness," or "religion," but no single English word conveys the whole

meaning of dharma. The Vedic sage Jaimini defined dharma as "a good the nature of a

command that leads to the attainment of the highest good." Now, there are different opinions

as to what the highest good is that the Veda commands mankind to attain. These different

opinions are the basis of the multifarious kinds of religious worship seen today within so-

called Hinduism. From out of the gamut of Hindu piety, three great religious traditions

emerge: Smarta-brahmanism, Shiva-shaktaism, and Vaishnavism. Each tradition is associated

with one of the tri-murtis, the three main deities of Vedic dharma: Brahma, Shiva, and


The Smarta-brahmanas or hereditary priests preside over the religious affairs of millions of

ordinary Hindus. These priests conduct the services for the different devatas (demigods) that

bless common people with material benedictions (wealth, family happiness, good health and

so on). The Smarta-brahmanas are grouped in gotras (families) that are said to descend from

Caturmukha Brahma. They uphold and defend the caste system (jati-vyavastha) which

determines a person's social position in Hindu society. For a Smarta-brahmana, the main

qualification of brahmanism (priesthood) is birth in a brahmana-gotra.

The Saivites and the Shaktas worship Shiva and his feminine energy Shakti, who is addressed

by names like Devi, Durga, Parvati and Kali. While Brahma is the lord of cosmic creation,

Shiva is the lord of cosmic devastation. Shakti is the goddess of the total material nature, or

prakriti. Because Shiva is very easily pleased, those who desire rapid material advancement

for little effort are especially interested in worshiping him and Shakti. The worship of

Ganesha and Muruga (Kartikeya) is associated with Saivism, because they are both sons of

Shiva. Also associated with Saivism and Shaktaism are left-and right-hand tantra.

Vaishnavism is the worship of Vishnu, the controller of the sattva-guna, the mode of

goodness, by which everything is maintained. Brahma controls rajo-guna, the mode of

passion, and Shiva controls tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance. Of these three states of

material existence, goodness is topmost. The universe is created and destroyed again and

again. These cycles of work by Brahma and Shiva are maintained eternally by the goodness of

Vishnu. The name Vishnu means "all-pervading." Lord Vishnu dwells in the hearts of all

beings as the Supersoul, as well as within every atom. He is also the total form of the universe

(visvarupa) and the origin of Brahma and Shiva. Beyond the universe, Vishnu has His own

transcendental abode called Vaikuntha, the spiritual world. The original and most intimate

form of Vishnu is the all-attractive, ever-youthful Sri Krishna. Lord Krishna, the eternal,omniscient, and incomparably blissful Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the speaker of the

Bhagavad-gita, the most important text of the Hindu religion. The Bhagavad-gita rejects caste

by birth and any form of worship motivated by material desire. Complete surrender to Krishna

is said to surpass all other commands of dharma in the Vedas (see {Bhagavad-gita 18.66}).

Surrender to Krishna delivers the soul from the cycle of repeated birth and death (samsara-

cakra) and returns the soul back home, back to Godhead.

2. What Is Vedanta?




The highest degree of Vedic education, traditionally reserved for the sannyasis (renunciants),

is mastery of the texts known as the Upanisads. The Upanisads teach the philosophy of the

Absolute Truth (Brahman) to those seeking liberation from birth and death. Study of the

Upanisads is known as vedanta, "the conclusion of the Veda." The word upanisad means "that

which is learned by sitting close to the teacher." The texts of the Upanisads are extremely

difficult to fathom; they are to be understood only under the close guidance of a spiritual

master (guru). Because the Upanisads contain many apparently contradictory statements, the

great sage Vyasadeva (also known as Vedavyasa, Badarayana, or Dvaipayana) systematized

the Upanisadic teachings in the Vedanta-sutra, or Brahma-sutra. Vyasa's sutras are terse.

Without a fuller explanation, their meaning is difficult to grasp. In India there are five main

schools of vedanta, each established by an acarya (founder) who explained the sutras in a

bhasya (commentary).

Of the five schools, one, namely Adi Shankara's, is impersonalist. Shankara taught that

Brahman has no name, form nor personal characteristics. Shankara's school is opposed by the

four Vaishnava sampradayas founded by Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, and Vishnusvami.

Unlike the impersonalist school, Vaishnava vedanta admits the validity of Vedic statements

that establish difference (bheda) within Brahman, as well those that establish nondifference

(abheda). Taking the bheda and abheda statements together, the Vaishnava Vedantists

distinguish between three features of the one Vastu Brahman (Divine Substance):

* Vishnu as the Supreme Soul (Para Brahman).

* The individual self as the subordinate soul (Jiva Brahman).

* Matter as creative nature (Mahad Brahman).

The philosophies of the four Vaishnava sampradayas dispel the sense of mundane limitation

ordinarily associated with the word "person." Vishnu is accepted by all schools of Vaishnava

vedanta as the transcendental, unlimited Purusottama (Supreme Person), while the individual

souls and matter are His conscious and unconscious energies (cidacid-shakti).

3. What Is Siddhanta?


Each Vedantist school is known for its siddhanta, or "essential conclusion" about the

relationships between God and the soul, the soul and matter, matter and matter, matter and

God, and the soul and souls. Shankara's siddhanta is advaita, "nondifference" (everything isone; therefore these five relationships are unreal). All the other siddhantas support the reality

of these relationships from various points of view. Ramanuja's siddhanta is visistadvaita,

"qualified nondifference." Madhva's siddhanta is dvaita, "difference." Vishnusvami's

siddhanta is suddhadvaita, "purified nondifference." And Nimbarka's siddhanta is dvaita-

advaita, "difference and identity."



The Bengali branch of Madhva's sampradaya is known as the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya

Sampradaya, or the Chaitanya Sampradaya. In the 1700s this school presented Indian

philosophers with a commentary on Vedanta-sutra written by Baladeva Vidyabhushana that

argued yet another siddhanta. It is called acintya-bhedabheda-tattva, which means

"simultaneous, inconceivable oneness and difference." In recent years this siddhanta has

become known to people all over the world due to the popularity of the books of His Divine

Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Acintya-bhedabheda philosophy maintains the

same standpoint of "difference" as Madhva's siddhanta on the fivefold relationship of God to

soul, soul to matter, matter to matter, matter to God, and soul to soul. But acintya-

bhedabheda-tattva further teaches the doctrine of shaktiparinamavada (the transformation of

the Lord's shakti), in which the origin of this fivefold differentiation is traced to the Lord's

play with His shakti, or energy. Because the souls and matter emanate from the Lord, they are

one in Him as His energy yet simultaneously distinct from Him and one another. The oneness

and difference of this fivefold relationship is called acintya, or inconceivable, because, as

Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 18.78, "Nothing is different from the

Supreme, but the Supreme is always different from everything." As the transcendental origin

and coordinator of His energies, God is ever the inconceivable factor.

4. Shankara and Buddhism


Sometimes Shankara's advaita-vedanta commentary is presented in books about Hinduism as

if it were the original and only vedanta philosophy. But in fact Shankara's philosophy is more

akin to Buddhism than vedanta. Buddhism is a nastika, or non-Vedic, religion. Before 600

AD, the time of Shankara's appearance, most Vedantist scholars did not endorse a doctrine of

impersonalism. Evidence gathered from the writings of pre-Shankara Buddhist scholars shows

that their Vedantist contemporaries were Purusa-vadins (purusa = "person", vadin =

"philosopher"). Purusavadins taught that the goal of Vedanta philosophy is the Mahapurusa

(Greatest Person). Bhavya, an Indian Buddhist author who lived centuries before Shankara,

wrote in the Madhyamika-hrdaya-karika that the Vedantists of his time were adherents of the

doctrine of bhedabheda (difference and nondifference). That Shankara borrowed Buddhistic

ideas was noted by the Buddhists themselves. A Buddhist writer named Bhartrhari, a

contemporary of Shankara, expressed some surprise that although Shankara was a brahmana

scholar of the Vedas, his impersonal teachings resembled Buddhism. This is admitted by the

followers of Shankara themselves. Pandit Dr. Rajmani Tigunait of the Himalayan Institute of

Yoga is a present-day exponent of advaita-vedanta; in his book, Seven Systems of Indian

Philosophy, he writes that the ideas of the Buddhist Sunyavada (voidist) philosophers are very

close to Shankara's. Shankara inserted into Vedantic discourse the Buddhistic idea of ultimate

emptiness, substituting the Upanisadic word brahman ("the Absolute") for sunya ("the void").

Because Shankara argued that all names, forms, qualities, activities and relationships are

creations of maya (illusion), even divine names and forms, his philosophy is called mayavada

(the doctrine of illusion).However, to compare Brahman with the void is philosophically untenable. The Vedanta-sutra

defines Brahman, not Maya, as the cause of everything (janmadyasya-yatah, Vedanta-sutra

1.1.2). How can that which lacks name, form, quality, and activity be the cause of that which

possesses these features? Nil posse creari de nilo: "Nothing can be created out of nothing."

Mayavadi vedanta avoids the issue of causation by arguing that the world, though empirically

real, is ultimately a dream. But dreams also have elaborate causes.

5. Differences Among the Four Vaishnava Sampradayas




The four Vaishnava sampradayas all agree that Vishnu is the cause, but they explain His

relationship with His creation differently. In visistadvaita, the material world is said to be the

body of Vishnu, the Supreme Soul. But the dvaita school does not agree that matter is

connected to Vishnu as body is to soul, because Vishnu, God, is transcendental to matter. The

world of matter is full of misery, but since Vedanta-sutra 1.1.12 defines God as anandamaya

(abundantly blissful), how can nonblissful matter be His body? The truth, according to the

dvaita school is that matter is ever separate from Vishnu but yet is eternally dependent upon

Vishnu; by God's will, says the dvaita school, matter becomes the ingredient cause of the

world. The suddhadvaita school cannot agree with the dvaita school that matter is the

ingredient cause, because matter has no independent origin apart from God. Matter is actually

not different from God in the same way an effect is not different from its cause, although

there is an appearance of difference. The example of the ocean and its waves is given by

suddhadvaita philosophers to illustrate their argument that the cause (the ocean) is the same as

the effect (the waves). The dvaitadvaita school agrees that God is both the cause and effect

but is dissatisfied with the suddhadvaita school's standpoint that there is really no difference

between God and the world. The dvaitadvaita school says that God is neither one with nor

different from the world -- He is both. A snake, the dvaitadvaita school argues, can neither be

said to have a coiled form nor a straight form. It has both forms. Similarly, God's "coiled

form" is His transcendental nonmaterial aspect, and His "straight form" is His mundane

aspect. But this explanation is not without problems. If God's personal nature is eternity,

knowledge, and bliss, how can the material world, which is temporary, full of ignorance, and

miserable, be said to be just another form of God?

6. Reconciliation of the Four Vaishnava Viewpoints


The Chaitanya school reconciles these seemingly disparate views of God's relationship to the

world by arguing that the Vedic scriptures testify to God's acintya-shakti, "inconceivable

powers." God is simultaneously the cause of the world in every sense and yet distinct from

and transcendental to the world. The example given is of a spider and its web. The web

emanates from the spider's body, so the spider may be taken as the ingredient cause of the

web. But that does not make the spider and the web one and the same. The spider is always a

separate and distinct entity from its web. Yet again, while the spider never is the web, the

existence of the web cannot be separated from the spider.There is a further lesson to be learned from this example: while the spider is clearly different

from its web-creation, it nonetheless is acutely conscious of every corner o